Gracing the screens in the ‘90s, meet the black Hollywood actor who was paid to be white

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During the 20th century when Hollywood had few roles for black actors, a certain Jamaican-born American character played roles of all races.

Described by Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad fame as being “open … a chameleon,” Frank Silvera was one of the great actors in the 20th century.

Whilst on stage, screen or TV, Silvera was said to look and sound like any man of any race or nationality.

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According to his obituary in the New Pittsburgh Courier on June 27, 1970, he was, “a white bad man in ‘Killer with a Gun,’ a South American revolutionist in ‘The Naked Hunt,’ a Chinese Colonel in ‘The Mountain Road,’ a Mexican detective in ‘Key Witness’ and a Tahitian chieftain in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’”

The proof was in his acting credits – 77 – and that doesn’t include his stage work or each individual television episode in which he appeared, according to IMDB.

Silvera was so good at manoeuvring between black, white and other ethnic roles such that it became hard to see him for who he really was.

He was born in Jamaica to a white Jewish father and a black mother from the Caribbean island. He often just blended in as “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing” – a name of a documentary about the trials and tribulations of Hollywood careers.

When Silvera turned 8-years-old, his parents went their separate ways. Along with his brothers, he migrated with his mother to Boston where he was enrolled in school, graduating from English High School in 1934.

Silvera’s mind was on a legal career. For two years, he was enrolled at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, but his heart belonged to the stage. In 1934, he appeared in his first show, Potter’s Field, at Boston’s Plymouth Theatre. He also belonged to the city’s Federal Street Theatre.

Just like his fellow Jamaican Harry Belafonte, Silvera joined the Navy during World War II. “Silvera believes that he is probably the only boatswain never to have set foot aboard a ship.”

During his tour of duty, he toiled on stage productions, according to an article that ran subsequently in the Chicago Daily Defender on March 6, 1971.

Silvera moved to New York after the war and in 1945, he made his Broadway debut as Joe in Anna Lucasta, which had been adapted for an all-black cast by the American Negro Theater in 1944.

Silvera enhanced his craft and became a member of the Actors Studio. He landed his first television appearance which centered around The Big Story in 1949.

His first screen role was in the 1952 Audie Murphy western, The Cimarron Kid. That year, he also starred as Paulino in The Fighter, Victoriano Huerta in Viva Zapata and Arturo dos Santos in The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.

With his skin type, Silvera could play anyone and the New York Times on June 12, 1970, described him as a “man of many parts.”

Frank Silvera, a multi-talented black actor
Pic Credit: wikipedia

Most people linked Silvera with Spanish roles. He played roles such as The Appaloosa to Bat Masterson to Bonanza. He also played an “Arab leader” in TV’s The Rat Patrol. He was quoted in the New York Amsterdam News on Sept. 10, 1966: “I have played … more varied national characters than I can honestly number.” “Strange business.”

James Baldwin’s first play, The Amen Corner, a tale of a Harlem evangelist published in 1954 inspired his civil rights movement.

“I marched in the March on Washington, and after it I saw the hitch.” “I knew what was happening to me as a Negro and how I could transcend it as a white man. I knew the suffering that oppression causes.  I was on a compassion kick. I decided I had to do something about it,” he was quoted in the Washington Post on June 13, 1970.

“I staged a reading of ‘The Amen Corner,’ then called Baldwin and told him I’d like to produce it,” Silvera told the Los Angeles Sentinel on March 2, 1965. Baldwin’s response: “ ‘You just hit me with a blockbuster, baby.’ ” Silvera’s staging of play led to the creation of the Theatre of Being in Los Angeles, which he founded with Vantile Whitfield.

Silvera also turned his attention to directing and producing by founding the Frank Silvera Theatre of Being in Los Angeles, which “trained aspiring young black actors and personally financed the theatre in its early years,” writes.

However, Silvera could not live long enough to see what had become of his Theatre of Being in Los Angeles. Just before his 56th birthday, Silvera had an accident and was later electrocuted at his home in Pasadena while trying to fix his garbage disposal.

Frank Alvin Silvera (July 24, 1914 – June 11, 1970) was a Jamaican-born American character actor and theatrical director. Silvera was known as “the man with a thousand faces” because of his ability to play a wide array of roles. Pic Credit: blackkudos.tumblr.com

Silvera’s legacy persists through the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop, formed in Harlem in 1973 by Morgan Freeman and his devoted students.